Originally, I wasn’t enamored with the Sega Dreamcast. In fact, it’s a bit strange I even remember my first encounter, really: While my first encounters with new hardware generations were generally outlook-changing, my first look at the Dreamcast was a bit of a damp squib.
Though originally released in the UK twenty years ago this month (twenty years!? That can’t be right! I demand a recount!), I’d actually bumped into it about six months earlier while Shopping in an independent game shop in Romford (I ended up buying a second hand copy of the middling but enjoyable N64 Mission Impossible tie-in FYI.) The shop had acquired a demonstration model of the recently-released Japanese Dreamcast and had it up and running behind the counter, showing off the original Sonic Adventure.
Watching the fantastic whale section, I felt a weird sort of relief. It was nice to see Sonic starring in a proper 3D game, and it did look a LITTLE more impressive than Banjo Kazooie on the N64, but it didn’t feel like i’d seen a paradigm shift. I didn’t experience that roller coaster-like “woah” feeling that I’d had from seeing Sonic and Streets of Rage running on a Megadrive or from Ridge Racer running on a Playstation.
Maybe I was just getting older, with child-like enthusiasm giving way to teenage cynicism, or maybe I was feeling cautious after witnessing the (all-too) brief life of the 32X and Sega’s mishandling of the Saturn in the UK (£100 more than the PlayStation with no RF lead!?) Looking back today, it could just be that I’d witnessed the birth of modern gaming with the large revolutionary leaps of the past giving way to steady incremental changes. Either way, I wasn’t massively impressed. For the first time, I didn’t feel like my current hardware had suddenly been made redundant. For the first time, I was happy to wait and see how the new platform would perform before jumping in.
I didn’t really think much about the Dreamcast again until after its official release in the UK. Sitting in my R.E. classroom waiting for the teacher to turn up, I overheard some of my class mates discussing Ready 2 Rumble boxing on their new Dreamcast. These weren’t the kids I’d generally have been expecting to be talking about computer games either (in fact, had they been 4 or 5 years older, i expect they’d be the ones giving the kids who did play videogames a hard time…) Maybe Sega were onto a winner after all.
Even then, it took me the best part of a year to take the plunge. Not only was i waiting patiently for the release of the excellent (but still slightly disappointing) Perfect Dark, but i think i still lacked a bit of faith. It didn’t help that the Dreamcast made a lot of outlandish promises. The memory cards that doubled as a hand held seemed like pure science fiction, while my own experiments with dialup PC games made me question the point of the in built modem.
Still the following summer – with the world having survived the scurge of the millennium bug – I finally took the plunge. At the time it felt like a natural progression: The N64 was clearly at the end of its life and the Dreamcast seemed to have answered all of my doubts by developing a substantial ecosystem: game shops were now devoting a healthy amount of shelf space to the Dreamcast and in news agents Dreamcast magazines seemed to be popping up left right and center.
In fact, the momentum gathering around the Dreamcast encouraged me to fill in my own Sega blind spot: Picking up a cheap Saturn from one of the original pre-franchise CEX shops, I went on to order a bunch of dirt-cheap Saturn releases (like a boxed, pristine copy of Sonic Jam) from a little-known internet auction site called ‘eBay’. Consequently, towards the end of the summer, I was happy to cart my N64 stuff down to CEX to swap for Sega’s newest console. The rise of the Dreamcast felt unstoppable.
Despite this, I suppose people like me put the Dreamcast on the path to an early doom. By the time I bought my Dreamcast, the sands were already shifting underneath it: with management changes at Sega HQ, the wheels were already being put in motion to allow the company to leave the console market altogether – with the Dreamcast playing an important part in this. It might have been selling units, but it was still falling a little short of its sales targets. Perhaps if more people like me had jumped onto the Dreamcast wagon sooner the big wigs might have been persuaded to try and tough it out a little longer. As it stands, the Dreamcast was discontinued about 7 months after i bought the machine. Sob.
An interesting factoid about the Dreamcast is that, with just 17 months between UK release and discontinuation, its lifespan was on par with the maligned 32x add-on for the Megadrive. Despite this, the Dreamcast had a much more profound effect on both the people who played on one and the industry as a whole. Looking back with 20 years’ worth of hindsight, The Dreamcast was a console with one foot firmly in the past and with one looking to the future.
You see, when it came to the past, the Dreamcast realistically represented the arcade’s last hurrah. Companies might continue to produce arcade games today, but the Dreamcast was the last time that arcade ports would act as the backbone of a system. Thanks to the shared innards between the Dreamcast and Sega’s NAOMI arcade platform (an arrangement that acted as a successor to the link between Sega’s Saturn and Titan arcade hardware), a good chunk of the Dreamcast’s most popular games came straight from the arcade, including the likes of Power Stone, Crazy Taxi and Virtua Tennis. Though there was a similar link between Microsoft’s Xbox and Sega’s NAOMI-succeeding Chihiro board, the resulting releases were novelties that had little impact on on the Xbox and Playstation 2 eco systems.
It is perhaps it’s link to the future of gaming that the Dreamcast is perhaps best known for today. Sega had recognised the internet’s potential as early as the 16-bit days, but it wasn’t until the Dreamcast that they showed what could truly be possible. Though the in-built Dreamcast modem was about half as fast as the one in our family PC, The Dreamcast used dedicated servers and Sega’s own infrastructure, meaning Dreamcast versions were lightning fast with minimal performance issues. Compared to the laggy, choppy dial up games I’d played on my PC, the likes of Quake and Phantasy Star Online felt like some sort of witch craft.
Indeed, along with highlighting what was coming the future, the Dreamcast also demonstrated shortcomings with contemporary practices. Though the game-playing capabilities of the VMU seemed like pure science fiction, the amount of storage they contained was not. Consequently, though a number of Dreamcast games featured amazingly creative features – such as the ability to download additional racing stages in Sonic Adventure 2 or style your own graffiti in Jet Set Radio – their use was inhibited by expensive memory cards that featured just a few MB of storage. Hard drives were undoubtedly the future.
For me, however, the Dreamcast personally came to represent liberation. This was both creative liberation for developers – who seemed to have been granted a freer hand to be creative than they were in the periods immediately before and after – and for me personally. The arrival of my Dreamcast coincided with my first proper Saturday job. Not only did I have more money to spend but the pounds seemed to be travelling further too. Though I found some great bargains in the 16 and 32 bit eras (a brand new copy of Zero Wing going for £5 in the Triccadero HMV stands out, for some reason), these bargains were never as consistent as they were In the Dreamcast era, with the likes of Mr Driller, Chu Chu Rocket, Wetrix, Toy Commander and Tokyo Xtreme Racer all offering a hell of a lot of game for under £10 a piece.
A doomed platform it might have been, but I’ll always remember the Dreamcast period for being a special one. From the grandiose likes of Shenmue, down to the basic silly fun of Chu Chu Rocket, the Dreamcast inhabited a sweet spot between the stark technical limitations of the 16 and 32 bit eras and the harsh financial barriers of modern AAA game development. The Dreamcast was a canvas that allowed Sega and its third parties to create games that not only felt incredibly fresh at the time, but still feel fresh two decades later.
Happy 20th anniversary, Dreamcast. You reignited my love for all things segs and kept it burning ever since. I’ll always wonder what the games industry would look like today if you had become the mainstream platform you thoroughly deserved to be.